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Something rotten in the state of procurement

Toby Harris on the many questions raised by recent investigations into the awarding of Covid-related contracts

There’s no other way of putting this but something doesn’t quite smell right about the government’s Covid-related procurement processes. Something that has seen two contracts worth £8.4million to supply hand sanitiser being awarded to Taeg Energy Limited. A company that was previously involved in electricity production and has for some time laid dormant. 

Similarly, a contract for £692,000 worth of hospital gowns was awarded to Kau MediaGroup Ltd, which previously specialised in social media, search engine optimisation and online advertising. And then there’s Ayanda Capital – a firm whose apparent expertise is in currency trading, offshore property, and private equity. More recently, however, it has branched out to supply £252 million worth of face masks to the Department of Health. Perhaps no surprise, then, that around £150 million worth of these masks failed to meet NHS safety standards.

I am grateful to Byline Times for the examples – but there are plenty more, with pest control firms and confectionary suppliers now deemed to be obvious sources of much needed PPE. I guess it takes all sorts.

These companies all benefited from fast-track procurement exercises used to ensure that necessary equipment was bought for the NHS without them having to go through cumbersome tendering processes and the usual due diligence. Corner-cutting may well be justified in an emergency, but those normally awarded such contracts tend to be established suppliers of the items in question.

So, how on earth did these companies get chosen? How were those responsible for procurement decisions even aware of their interest? And what assessment was made of their capability to deliver the relevant contracts without any track record in the field?

The answer seems to have been provided by the Good Law Project, which has uncovered a ‘Cross-Government Coordination Team’ within the Cabinet Office charged with ‘VIP Triage’ – presumably to ensure that favoured suppliers received preferential treatment. Some were even ‘guided’ through the processes and helped with advice on prices.

The Good Law Project also point out that contractors who received this help seemed to be companies linked to prominent figures within government; and that many who have successfully bid for contracts associated with PPE or Covid test and tracing have donated substantially to the Conservative Party.

In any other jurisdiction, we would call this out as reeking of corruption and cronyism. The most charitable explanation is that the whole process demonstrates rank incompetence or naivety.

Either way, the government must dispel these impressions by displaying full transparency. For every one of these fast-track contracts, all documentation needs to be published – including emails or messages ‘suggesting’ specific contractors. We need to understand how these companies came to the notice of the procurement teams, with proof that the decisions on each contract were based on value for money rather than favouritism.

It is said that a fish rots from its head – but if it stinks like a rotten fish, you must assume that it is indeed a rotten fish.

Lord Toby Harris is Chair of the Labour Peers Group. He tweets @LordTobySays

Published 3rd November 2020



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published this page in Blog 2020-11-03 10:09:32 +0000

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